Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim’s Progress

Oft criticised for its lack of dramatic shape, it has taken a similarly long of
time for this meditative, visionary opera, or ‘Morality’ as the composer
termed it, with its patchwork libretto drawn from Bunyan’s allegory, the
Psalms and other biblical texts, to receive a subsequent theatrical hearing:
indeed, ENO claim that this is the first fully staged professional production
for 60 years.

Director Yoshi OÔda and his designer Tom Schenk present us with a sombre
vista: distressed buttress-like doors topped by metal cages, which twist and
reconfigure in flexible combinations to suggest the infinite, labyrinthine
corridors of incarceration. Bunyan does not leave his prison, but his dream
enables him to escape physical confinement through spiritual liberation and
transcendence, and Vaughan Williams indicates this in a Prologue and Epilogue
in which Bunyan is seen in his cell, his back bearing a weighty burden. Further
developing this frame, OÔda compels his Pilgrim to wander ceaselessly through
various prison chambers, accompanied by fellow prisoners who become first his
accompanying pilgrims and later the doleful creatures of the Valley of
Humiliation and the lecherous debauchees of Vanity Fair. As the staging is
shifted and turned, a thickly encrusted backdrop of deep ochres rising to smoky
turquoises is momentarily revealed, like a Renaissance fresco. It is perhaps a
glimpse of more ethereal worlds; but, elsewhere OÔda and Schenk offer few
visual consolations and put their faith in Vaughan Williams’ radiant score to
communicate the inspiring force of Bunyan’s dream and transport us to higher

In Acts 1 and 2 the music certainly fulfils this task. All of Vaughan
Williams is contained within this richly self-allusive score: the majestic
dignity of the Sea Symphony, the dissonant conflicts of the Fourth,
the meditative contemplations of the Fifth, the gentle pastoralism of the Third
and Flos Campi, the spiritual consolations of the Serenade to
. Conductor Martyn Brabbins conjured from the ENO orchestra music of
epic grandeur and sweep, and of tender, diaphanous beauty. The opulent brass
chords which chime out the opening psalm-tune modulated to a more mysterious,
profound choir of trombones underpinning the arrival of the Evangelist.
Similarly, the flashing trumpet fanfares which jubilantly herald the King’s
Highway suggested hope for the world to come. The Evangelist was sung
convincingly and with calm composure by Benedict Nelson, who subsequently, in
Watchful’s Intermezzo between Acts 1 and 2, ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I
commend my spirit’, conveyed the peaceful simplicity of the monadic baritone

OÔda makes interesting use of the aesthetic concepts of Japanese theatre,
drawing on the stylised gestures and ritualism of Noh and Kyogen. In a striking
coup de thȂtre the Pilgrim wields a bunraku miniature of himself to
defeat the giant monster Apollyan — which rises like a gargantuan tower of
rotting detritus from the deep, topped with a garish gas mask — as his howls
(resonantly intoned by Mark Richardson) mingle with the doleful cries of the
inhabitants of his oppressive realm.

The stark contrast of the immediately succeeding scene is first
disconcerting then reassuring. The discordant orchestral turmoil is salved by
soothing harp and strings, heralding the arrival of Two Heavenly Beings, sung
by Kitty Whaley and Aoife O’Sullivan, whose simple lyricism relieved and
comforted the Pilgrim with Tree of Life and the Water of Life.

Sadly, both musical and dramatic momentum flagged in Act 3 and 4. Vaughan
William’s musical idiom is less varied here, perhaps because fundamentally
there is no real dramatic conflict: the Pilgrim’s struggles are essentially
internal, philosophical. Having backed minimalist visual intervention, OÔda
stuck to his guns, but at times the result was bland and monotonous.

The rot actually set in (and the low point was reached) in the Vanity Fair
episode. The scene presents unfortunate echoes of the ‘progress’ of
Stravinsky’s Rake, but Vaughan Williams’ music lacks
Stravinsky’s wit and sensuality, and the sharp satire of Hogarth and Auden is
entirely absent. Stale, derivative and ultimately neither shocking nor
sensuous, OÔda’s clichÈd staging of a realm riddled with transvestism and
endemic hermaphroditism certainly provided a visual contrast but was bizarrely
incongruous with the world and ‘meaning’ of the rest of the opera. Faced
with a parade of Cabaret copies and gyrating fairground grotesques it
was not surprising that Pilgrim did not find himself tempted.

In Act 4, woodwind and horns conjure a restorative pastoral serenity, and
the mood of tranquillity was enhanced by the song of the Woodcutter’s Boy,
‘He that is down need fear no fall’, sung with sweet composure by Kitty
Whately — and repeated at the close with touching instrumental counterpoint
by clarinet and viola. But, although the Delectable Mountains can be seen on
the horizon, the promised end to the Pilgrim’s journey is still some distance
away! There is little musical connection between this passage and the next,
marked by the arrival of the comical duo, Mr and Mrs By-Ends, and OÔda made no
attempt to provide organic visual or dramatic threads.

Indeed, throughout OÔda relished disparity, combining realism and period
authenticity with symbolism and eclectic historical and cultural references.
This heterogeneity was sometimes jarring. In a ritual robing at the start of
his quest, the Pilgrim is dressed in seventeenth-century breastplate and helmet
but arrested by English soldiers in the uniforms of WWII. When the Evangelist
blesses the Pilgrim at the end of Act 2, he gives him the Roll of the Word, the
Key of Promise, and a staff —the latter, here, a gent’s 1930’s umbrella.
Such juxtapositions may serve to emphasise the universality of the work; but, a
sense of embracing cohesion was diminished by the precise and increasingly
frequent allusions to the world wars of the twentieth century — a tiny screen
projected film footage of the war — in the aftermath of which the opera was
first performed. Thus, in the closing moments, Eleanor Dennis as The Voice of a
Bird, clutches an outsize white feather, which then transmutes into the white
quill with which the Pilgrim’s death warrant is signed: is he accused of
cowardice? And, the electric chair with which the Pilgrim is threatened in
Vanity Fair is the medium of his final transfiguration: placed aloft,
mid-stage, are we to imagine it is the gate to Heaven?

This work needs a baritone protagonist of considerable prowess and stamina
— the Pilgrim is on stage throughout almost every scene — to provide
dramatic focus and, in this particular production, to hold Oida’s disparate
parts together. Fortunately it has one, in Roland Wood who, from slightly
uncertain beginnings grew in musical and dramatic stature, reaching rapturous
heights in his Act 3 aria, ‘Show me the way, O Lord, teach me Thy paths’,
his progress culminating in a wonderfully moving final aria which shone with
emotional intensity. There was an outstanding performance too from Timothy
Robinson, who engaging adopted an array of disparate guises.

Forced into camp clichÈ in the Vanity Fair scene, the ENO chorus were
nevertheless in outstanding voice: they relished the rhythmic vigour and
nobility of the setting of ‘Who would true valour see’ that interpolates
the dialogue between the Herald and Pilgrim in Act 2; and the exultations of
the heavenly chorus, bathed in blinding light, of the closing moments were

There is no doubt of the sincerity of Vaughan Williams’ expression of
humanity’s search for spiritual redemption. But, this production provided
little evidence that the composer was correct in his insistence that it should
be staged in the theatre, and not presented as a sort of church pageant or
oratorio. OÔda invites us to view the allegorical events through the
contextual prism of modern conflict; but then scatters a host of, admittedly
sometimes imaginative and suggestive, visual allusions, which dilute the
concept. The static qualities of the work are in fact deepened, not allayed, by
the minimal set and frequent wide open expanses, as well as by the intermittent
ritualistic gestures and motions. Ironically, perhaps a counter-intuitive
visual radicalism might have been more effective.

That said, in addition to its ‘rarity value’, this production is worth
catching for Roland Wood’s performance which communicates both human
fallibility and divine holiness, and is complemented by the unfailing
commitment and sensitivity of the whole cast.

Claire Seymour

Cast and Production:

Pilgrim/John Bunyan: Roland Wood; Evangelist/Watchful/First Shepherd:
Benedict Nelson; Obstinate/Herald/Lord Hate-Good: George von Bergen;
Interpreter/Usher/Mr By-Ends/Second Shepherd: Tim Robinson; Timorous/Lord
Lechery/Messenger: Colin Judson; Pliable/Superstition/Celestial Voice 1:
Alexander Sprague; Mistrust/Apollyon/Envy/Third Shepherd: Mark Richardson ;
First Shining One/Madam Wanton/Voice of a Bird/Celestial Voice 3: Eleanor
Dennis; 2nd Shining One/ Branch-Bearer/ Malice: Aoife O’Sullivan; Third
Shining One/Cup-bearer/Pickthank/Woodcutter’s Boy: Kitty Whately; Madam
Bubble/Mrs By-Ends/Celestial Voice 2: Ann Murray.

Conductor: Martyn Brabbins; Director: Yoshi OÔda; Set and Video Designer:
Tom Schenk; Costume Designer: Sue Willmington; Lighting Designer: Lutz Deppe;
Choreographer: Carolyn Choa.

image_description=The “Vanity Fair” scene [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of English National Opera]
product_title=Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim’s Progress
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: The “Vanity Fair” scene [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of English National Opera]